At a time when Black Americans nationwide are fighting to be heard, local muralist Sydney James is sending a message loud and clear: “Look at us. We’re here. We are vibrant. We are beautiful. Repeat.”
James, who has been painting murals across the city since 2014, is no novice at making a statement through her art. Her notable pieces include “Our Issue” and “Black List” in Eastern Market, as well as the “Malice Green Mural Monument,” completed this past summer. Bedecking the Hamilton-Tucker Gallery’s exterior, the piece honors Green — a Black man who died at the hands of Detroit police in 1992 — and others like him. She has also created murals in New Orleans, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Ghana. In mid-September, James completed her largest piece yet. It looms nine stories above Grand Boulevard.
She had been approached by Peter Cummings, CEO of Detroit-based real estate developer The Platform, with a request to bring fresh art to the Chroma building, the company’s latest development. After nearly two years and $16 million in renovations, the 107-year-old former storage building in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction was nearly complete. But all the construction had caused irreparable damage to artist Katie Craig’s “Illuminated Mural,” which adorned the building’s west wall.
When Cummings asked James to paint the replacement, she needed little convincing. “Every muralist wants to paint that wall,” she says. “It’s very visible, and it’s huge. So, it was a yes — like a hell yes.”
At 4,000 square feet larger than her biggest mural at that time, the wall, in James’ eyes, was an opportunity. “You don’t see Black people that big, even in advertisements,” she says, “unless they’re an athlete or a historic figure — somebody that someone else has deemed important.”
The significance of a Black, female artist painting an 8,000-square-foot Black woman for all the world to see was not lost on the surrounding communities. Many local women of color, James says, gathered at the foot of the building to watch as she painted. One older woman told James she’d learned about the mural from the news and left her house for the first time after 129 days of social distancing. Watching the work take shape, the woman said, brought her out of a lockdown-induced depression.
The intention for all of her murals, James says, is to combat commonly negative portrayals of Black people. “The cultural semiotics of oppression work on Black people just as well as they work on everybody else. We start believing the portrayals that we see of us,” she says. She defies this narrative by painting Black people large. “I paint us big, beautiful, and strong because we need to know that we are.”
Upon her monumental new canvas, James chose to paint “Girl with the D Earring,” a reenvisioning of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Her interpretation features a Black woman, and the pearl earring is replaced with a large, dangling Old English “D.”
“It’s one woman,” Jame says. “But she represents Detroit in general. ‘Girl with the D Earring’ is a celebration of the city and a celebration of its people.”
Object Lesson: ‘Girl with the D Earring’
“Girl with the D Earring” is big and bold, and its message — a celebration of Black people,
and especially Black women — is hard to miss. But the mural also sends subtler signals.
We asked artist Sydney James to help us decipher her largest mural to date.
- The woman in the mural is artist Sydney James’ lifelong friend and North End Detroiter Halima Cassells. It’s not the first time she’s modeled for James, who says she’s inspired by Cassell’s activism. “She’s beautiful; she has very strong features. But it’s her personality and what she does for the community. She’s a whole package. She’s like a giant in this tiny, beautiful body.”
While James designed this piece specifically for the North End, she also wanted to incorporate the personality of the city as a whole — hence the glowing, Old English “D” dangling from the woman’s ear. Universally synonymous with Detroit, the “D” represents the soul of the city, which she says is embodied by its people.
The portrait’s vibrant hues represent Detroit’s long-held position as a center of cultural evolution. They double as a nod to the building they adorn, the Chroma building. James says it’s rich culture, like Detroit’s, that creates figurative and literal chroma — a word that denotes purity and intensity of color.
The signage and logos on the woman’s sleeve are from historic North End and Paradise Valley businesses. These touches are intended to commemorate Detroit’s past and pay homage to the communities around the Chroma building. James got the idea after a conversation about gentrification with Mike Banks, co-founder of the Detroit record label Underground Resistance, who told her, “We just don’t want to be forgotten.”